PRISM  On-Line - October 99
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Research - Out and About

by Douglas M. Green

Gone Consultin' My first consulting experience came when a computer firm near Anoka, Minnesota—the real-life Lake Wobegon—invited me to work for their Advanced Design Lab during the summer. As a conscientious engineering faculty member who read widely and talked to many computing professionals who came on campus, I felt that my knowledge of the computing industry was within six months of being on the cutting edge. By the end of the summer, however, I was shocked to realize that I was actually about three years behind. My three months of consulting allowed me to get closer to current technological practice, making it truly time well spent.

Staying current is just one of the benefits of exchanging your normal research activities for industry consulting work. Consulting not only allows you to bring contemporary, real-world engineering examples into the classroom, it can make you a more effective teacher and give you greater credibility with students. This added experience extends beyond technical issues to other aspects of engineering, such as project management techniques, bid processes, and federal regulations. Consulting can also lead to industrial funding for university research.

Still, despite the many benefits, there are some cautionary notes. Here are some things to consider before deciding to ply your trade beyond academia.

Who should be doing consulting work?

    As junior professors gain experience, their research programs result in more publications and their expertise becomes more widely known, and they may be approached about consulting opportunities. But academics is an unusual business in that, like law firms, we are the most demanding of the junior members of our profession. Therefore, I do not recommend part-time consulting activities for untenured faculty members!

What kind of jobs should you take?

    In many cases, the firm needs a specialized module of work done and they don't want to hire a full-time employee for the task. But often, the firm has an internal disagreement over some technological issue. If you are being hired by the decision maker in the company to fairly evaluate their situation and make an independent recommendation, the assignment is likely worthy of your talents. On the other hand, if you are just being brought in to support a predetermined point of view, you probably have better things to do with your time.

How much should you charge?

    Most universities allow professors to use their faculty office and computer for a limited amount of consulting (normally one day per week). A faculty member could, therefore, afford to charge less per day than full-time professional consultants who must pay their own overhead costs. But don't be tempted to charge a lower fee than is usual for professionals in your geographic area and discipline. Most private universities and all public universities want to maintain good "town/gown" relations with the industries in their community, and few things can sour those relationships quicker than professors undercutting the consulting rates of full-time professional engineers.

What about your day job?

    Many schools don't allow professors to conduct research at the university that can not be published. On the other hand, consulting work often requires a non-disclosure agreement. You should enter into such agreements with your eyes wide open, and check with your department chair or associate dean for research before signing anything. Intellectual property issues are of particular interest at many universities.

    Remember that your primary obligation is to your university. Your classes must be taught, your university research commitments met, and your committee work kept up. But getting away from the office to consult in your spare time can be invigorating for both you and your students.

 

      Douglas M. Green is chair of ASEE's Engineering Research Council
      and dean of engineering at Marquette University.

Engineering Grant Opportunities

Navy Basic and Applied Scientific Research Grants

    Number: unspecified
    Amount: $1000 to $1.5 million; average $110,907
    Deadline: contact sponsor
    Description: Basic and applied research to improve naval operations and train future researchers in science and engineering disciplines
    Contact: ONR 22, Office of Naval Research, (703) 696-2578, or see
    www.onr.navy.mil/02/baa/baa98019.htm

NIEHS Superfund Hazardous Substances Grants

NSF Computer and Information Science and Engineering Research Grants

    Number: unspecified
    Amount: $5,000 to $4.2 million
    Deadline: contact sponsor
    Description: Research improving fundamental understanding of computer and information processing.
    Contact: Juris Hartmanis, Assistant Director, (703) 306-1900; e-mail:
    jhartman@nsf.gov ; or see www.cise.nsf.gov/pub/ProgInfo.html

    Grant profiles reprinted from Directory of Research Grants 1999 ; Oryx Press; 1999; 1,232 pp., $135. Used with permission from Oryx Press, 4041 N. Central Ave., Suite 700, Phoenix, AZ 85012; (800) 279-6799; www.oryxpress.com

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